Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

“In the 1830s and 1840s, several European countries were gripped by a passion for statistics. It made things visible that had previously been hidden or taken for granted. The poor appeared as a social entity only when they were counted, and the resulting emergence of ‘poverty’ as an abstract concept helped to arouse a moral commitment. Statistical societies and journals were founded, and government offices were called into being to gather, evaluate, and store social data. Politics rested more than ever before on exact information. […]

“The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of number–of statistical processing or even ‘social mathematics,’ as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put it–could open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.

“There is much to suggest that they sometimes went too far. In some countries, more statistical knowledge was produced than could be scientifically and administratively handled. Statistics became what it still is today: a form of political rhetoric. The categories that statisticians had to develop were reified in the hands of government bureaucracies. Categories that statistics made technically necessary–classes, strata, castes, ethnic groups–acquired the power to mold reality for administrative departments and, indeed, in society’s perception of itself. Statistics had two faces: a tool for sociological description and explanation, and a powerful mechanism for stereotyping and labeling people. In both respects, it became a central element of the social imaginary. Nowhere was the second face more apparent than in the colonial world. Where social relations were much more difficult to understand than in close and familiar surroundings, many European observers and administrators succumbed to the false allure of objectivity and exactitude […]”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 28-29.

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